Designations Diminished

Our National Monuments are enduring reminders of our historic legacy and past accomplishments. They aim to protect for future generations the natural beauty and cultural significance of public sites that have helped to shape our national identity. But they also preserve our memory of atrocities committed against vulnerable people and the land that we must never forget in the hope that we will not repeat them. A new executive order from the Donald Trump Administration, signed on April 26, 2017, may put the sanctity of our National Monuments at risk.

In a press statement U.S. Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said under the Antiquities Act executive order his office will review all National Monuments designated since 1996 that are 100,000 acres or more. Environmental activists are concerned that this review 24 locations across the country, is the first step toward reducing or even eliminating certain heritage sites. Of particular concern are those areas established at the end of the Obama administration such as Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument and Gold Butte National Monument in Nevada. Several conservation groups have declared their opposition to the review despite assurances from the DOI.

”The executive order does not strip any monument of a designation,” Zinke said. “The executive order does not loosen any environmental or conservation regulation on any land or marine areas.”

The logic behind this review however suggests that the cultural integrity of certain sites might be maintained if they were made just a tiny bit smaller. Members of the Trump administration and some in Congress say that the provisions of the Antiquities of Act of 1906, which allow the President to designate federal land for National Monument status, has overstepped the law’s original intuitions. An anonymous DOI official was quoted by E&E News to say that some historic sites need not be so big.

”Past administrations have overused this power and designated large swaths of land well beyond the areas in need of protection,” the official said. “The Antiquities Act executive order directs the Department of the Interior to review prior monument designations and suggest legislative changes or modifications to the monument proclamations.”

Perhaps as a cost-saving effort, Trump’s executive order could be interpreted as a way to reduce the financial burden of natural resource management. The review might also reveal areas of some sites that might be better used for the extraction of oil, gas or minerals, designated for grazing livestock or reallocated for the harvest of timber. As such activities will likely create jobs and generate wealth for many local businesses it sounds in principle like a good idea. DOI Secretary Zinke suggests in a statement that local residents have been abused of their opportunities to weigh in on the public use of federal land near where they live, work and play. He said that past presidents have used the Antiquities Act to take more acres than necessary to preserve our national heritage.

“Historically, the Act calls for the President to designate the ‘smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected,'” Zinke said. “Despite this clear directive ‘smallest area’ has become the exception and not the rule. Under the President’s leadership, I will work with local, state and Tribal governments to review monument designations made the past 20 years and make sure they work for the local communities.”

The Antiquities Act executive order seems to presume that many National Monument designations were made since 1996 without sufficient community input. Zinke and the Trump Administration imply that the needs of citizens, particularly in rural enclaves, were not given fair consideration when the land was set aside. They claim that farmers, ranchers and miners may have been deprived of the right to earn their livelihood through the capitalization of natural resources.  But the potential loss of our national heritage far outweighs any possible windfall of short-term economic again. To make our National Monuments smaller for the sake of financial expediency is to diminish their significance in our collective culture and risk our forgetting why they were established in the first place.

The preservation of historic sites that mark the progress we have made toward becoming a people united under the shared legacy of environmental conservation must take precedent over the exploitation of non-renewable resources. With the designation of National Monuments we help to restore in part the sovereignty of Native Americans whose land was stolen in the rush to expand our western boarders. We acknowledge the natural history of land that is meant to benefit all Americans while recognizing the contributions of former slaves and non-white immigrants from Asia, Mexico and South America whose labor built much of the infrastructure that supports our modern society to this day, people whose stories are too often forgotten.

“We support the judicious use of the Antiquities Act by presidents of both political parties to protect, respect, and elevate diverse and inclusive histories. We will hold the Administration and other elected and appointed leaders accountable for any attempts to marginalize, erase, or censor our stories, histories and experiences in this country,” declares a statement from the Next 100 Coalition, a diverse group of environmental activists who aim to preserve our natural resources heritage through the 21st century. The Joy Trip Project is a member.
“The designation of places like Bears Ears National Monument demonstrates that U.S. leaders are taking steps toward healing from the painful history of attempts to alienate communities and eradicate cultures and beliefs. Today’s action by the President unfortunately takes us giant steps backward and reopens painful wounds for many communities.”

Though public land can certainly be used in support of private enterprise the designation of National Monuments has always focused on the best interests of the American people. Some like Utah Senator Orrin Hatch have described the creation of historic sites as a “land grab” and “the egregious abuse of the Antiquities Act”. But it is important to remember that these acres are already owned by the Federal Government to be managed for the benefit of its citizens. It is indeed possible to make commercial use of this public land, but any form of pragmatic management must be sustainable through the long-term interests of future Americans and use only methods of production that regenerate soil, water, plant and animal resources for centuries yet to come.

Just as we thoughtfully look into the future toward a society that is more diverse and inclusive of people we must also respect and acknowledge the heritage of our collective past. During Secretary Zink’s review of National Monument designations citizens and avocates of preservation must make known they desire to protect these historic sites so that they will not be diminished. Not only should we protect the public land upon which our nation was built, but we must also recognize the contributions of communities throughout our history that have done so much to protect and preserve these sites that stand now as National Monuments. They like the land must never again be forgotten.


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I'm a freelance journalist that specializes in telling stories about outdoor recreation, environmental conservation, acts of charitable giving and practices of sustainable living.

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